Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

The case for the digital commons

How can we build a digital ecosystem that ensures broadly shared participation and prosperity?

How can we build a digital ecosystem that ensures broadly shared participation and prosperity? Image: Marius Masalar/Unsplash

Divya Siddarth
Visiting Scholar, Ostrom Workshop, RadicalXChange Foundation
E. Glen Weyl
Founder, RadicalXChange Foundation
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  • Digital commons could also be an answer to the need for new market structures for resources such as data or artificial intelligence.
  • A "digital commons" would enable more flexible, responsive and regenerative systems to build and deploy technology.
  • Here's how companies, governments and civil society leaders can create a digital commons.
  • Read the paper "Building Back Broader: Policy Pathways for a Post-Pandemic Transformation" here.

COVID-19 highlighted and accelerated the centrality of digital technology in our lives. Yet the digital ecosystem is one of the most unequal and dysfunctional aspects of our collective lives. How can we build a digital ecosystem that ensures broadly shared participation and prosperity?

While state-driven ecosystems in places like China and India and the private sector-driven ecosystems in much of the West have some significant accomplishments, neither has managed to achieve the combination of broad democratic accountability and meaningfully distributed opportunity that was core to the equitable economic growth of democracies in the 20th century.

As highlighted by the work of the Global Future Council on the New Agenda for Economic Growth and Recovery, there is a need to actively design for shared democratic values across the market structures and governance models that drive today's technology development. We argue that shifting our view to see technology infrastructure as a digital commons could point the way forward for an inclusive and sustainable ecosystem with shared social benefit. This framework has emerged from the study and practice of successful community-based resource sharing, and was at the core of the original conception of the “Intergalactic Computer Network” that evolved the internet.

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Blind spots in digital governance

Private innovation as well as public policymaking, regulation and redistribution are crucial to managing the governance of technical systems for the common good at scale. However, these approaches also have major blind spots, which are evident in the world we see today.

On one hand, the status quo of loosely regulated and privately-owned foundational digital infrastructure has been tied to an eroding information ecosystem, increased political polarization, concerns about privacy and surveillance, and significant algorithmic bias across lines of race, gender and class. The increasingly short list of companies that build these systems on the cutting edge can essentially dictate the terms of online life with little to no public input or democratic accountability, despite the significant bearing that internal company decisions can have on broad economic opportunity, social connection and political discussion.

On the other hand, state-based mechanisms have also fallen short. Regulation has (with some exceptions) failed to catch up to cutting-edge technology, and has thus struggled to protect individual and community interests. Despite major strides in recent years, there has also been a widespread inability to leverage technology in partnership with private companies and community organizations to target our most significant social crises: climate change, public health and economic inequality. The rise of authoritarian uses of technology make it even more urgent for democracies to build towards a successful counterpart, and yet our current systems have not been able to provide such a rejoinder.

Why we need a digital commons

There is clearly something missing here. Reframing how we think of technology and of the economic paradigms linked to its use and development may be part of the answer. Many core technologies increasingly resemble resources like air, water and a habitable earth – resources that are expected to be accessible to, and managed in the interest of, all members of society. In other words – a commons-based resource. Taking inspiration from the Ostromian approach, shifting our view to see technology as a digital commons could begin to create more flexible, responsive and regenerative systems to build and deploy technology.

There is already evidence that a move towards common-pool digital public goods could have widely shared benefit. Parts of the digital world – often the most useful and admired parts – already function as commons: Internet protocols, which are governed by international institutions and open standards, the open-source software that enables these protocols, which are often community-stewarded, and much of the crucial information layer of the Internet, including Wikipedia, the Digital Library of Commons and the range of content under Creative Commons, all of which have their own, commons-inspired governance structures.

This was no accident: JCR Licklider, who sowed the seeds of the modern internet by creating the ARPANET, envisioned it as a global commons. Yet many of the crucial aspects of the commons he envisioned (including identity systems and data and compute sharing) were neglected when public funding for networking dried up in the 1970s and instead became the preserve of now-dominant digital platforms.

Perhaps the best argument for expanding the digital commons comes from Taipei, which credits much of its COVID-19 response and rapid economic growth to an ecosystem of community-stewarded technology development and deployment. For example, a collective hacking group called g0v, in partnership with Audrey Tang, the digital minister, pioneered a commons-oriented infrastructure for data coalitions, that allows for active participation in and ownership over shared datasets.

This infrastructure has been used to collect pollution data across the country, outperforming expensive, centralized sensors deployed by both the government and private companies and allowing for actors across these sectors to build from this rich, shared data. The same infrastructure, in combination with open protocols and APIs, was repositioned to allow for collective development of technologies to combat COVID-19, from contact tracing apps to mask rationing platforms.

While not all resources can or should be governed as a commons, the case of g0v points to pieces of digital infrastructure that would especially benefit from this treatment: social communications protocols, data and compute sharing infrastructure, open source software, identity and payments standards, and large machine learning models trained on data created in a Creative Commons framework.

Digital commons could also be an answer to the need for new governance structures for resources such as data or artificial intelligence, as recently highlighted by a World Economic Forum publication on the markets of tomorrow. Data lends itself especially well to a commons framework: both inputs and impacts are fundamentally shared, distributing access to these resources provides a foundation for further bottom-up innovation and technological progress, siloing or privatizing these erodes the possibility of stewarding collective benefit. Together, they form a shared layer necessary for economic growth and democratic participation.

How to achieve a digital commons

In this post-pandemic time of broad economic and social re-envisioning and re-alignment, an emphasis on the digital commons can point the way forward for collective recovery, solidarity and progress. To do this, however, will require major shifts in how many actors behave.

Corporations will have to recognize the role these open systems play in supporting their profits, and contribute expertise and significant financial support to allow them to thrive independently.

Governments will have to push forward on real regulation of privately controlled systems, open themselves to adopting democratic tools and processes from the social sector through hackathons and government endorsements of civil sector innovations, as well as providing funding to allow a sustainable ecosystem of innovation that is not beholden to venture capitalists or large companies.

And social sector leaders, as well as the public at large, will have to engage positively in shaping positive futures for the digital commons, following the motto of g0v: “Don’t ask why nobody is doing this. You are nobody.”

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